Web power

On­line mar­ket­place gives re­gion’s crafters sell­ing power

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Madi­son Is­zler

On­line mar­ket­place gives crafters sell­ing power.

Saratoga Springs Vickie Re­hberg had been sell­ing eques­trian- and jock­eythemed charms and jewelry at Saratoga Race Course for sev­eral years when she re­ceived an email from Ama­zon.

The e-com­merce gi­ant in­vited her to ap­ply for Ama­zon Hand­made, a mi­crosite for hand­crafted items the com­pany launched in 2015. Re­hberg had built a sub­stan­tial cus­tomer base at the track, but she saw the po­ten­tial — her son was suc­cess­ful in sell­ing tex­books on Ama­zon to earn spend­ing money while in col­lege — and de­cided to give it a shot.

Her sales dou­bled, an uptick she cred­its with help­ing her to open a brick-and-mor­tar bou­tique in Saratoga Springs later this month. Re­hberg also plans to ex­pand her prod­uct line and be­gin sell­ing hand-painted barn doors de­pict­ing a cus­tomer’s horse or a land­scape.

“It’s ab­so­lutely climb­ing,” she said, re­fer­ring to busi­ness. “You have the power of a big mar­ket­ing com­pany at your dis­posal.”

For ar­ti­sans and crafters, plat­forms like Ama­zon Hand­made and Etsy of­fer a means to gauge in­ter­est in a prod­uct, reach more cus­tomers and in­crease vis­i­bil­ity while earn­ing ex­tra cash. For the com­pa­nies be­hind the sites, it’s a lu­cra­tive op­por­tu­nity to cap­i­tal­ize on con­sumers’ de­sire for per­son­al­iza­tion, the so-called mak­ers move­ment and the pop­u­lar­ity of on­line shop­ping while tak­ing a sales cut.

The risk fac­tor for en­trepreneurs and small busi­ness own­ers is lower com­pared to open­ing a brick-and-mor­tar store, said Ted Potrikus, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Re­tail Coun­cil of New York State. Launch­ing a busi­ness on­line usu­ally doesn’t re­quire the same mon­e­tary in­vest­ment, and it’s some­thing peo­ple can do from the couch in their liv­ing room, he said. Also, if some­one spe­cial­izes in a spe­cific prod­uct or de­sign,

it gen­er­ally doesn’t make sense to open a store, he added. Busi­nesses need an as­sort­ment of prod­ucts to draw peo­ple in and at­tract the foot traf­fic nec­es­sary to stay afloat.

“On these web­sites, you can see if any­one bites,” Potrikus said. “It’s a great test mar­ket.”

The chal­lenge is en­sur­ing these plat­forms ad­here to the same rules as brick-and-mor­tar busi­nesses, Potrikus said, re­fer­ring to a case be­fore the Supreme Court that deals with whether on­line busi­nesses should be re­quired to col­lect sales tax from cus­tomers in states where they don’t have a phys­i­cal foot­print. A prior rul­ing in the 1992 case Quill Corp. v. North Dakota pre­vents states from man­dat­ing that re­tail­ers do so. The Supreme Court heard ar­gu­ments in April.

“We’re well past the day when the phys­i­cal-pres­ence test ap­plies in re­tail,” Potrikus said in a state­ment in April. “On­line jug­ger­nauts that to­day com­mand bil­lions in an­nual sales rely on Quill to give them a mas­sive tax ad­van­tage over brick-and-mor­tar re­tail­ers. These cor­po­ra­tions do not need the shel­ter the Court up­held for mail-or­der cat­a­logs more than 25 years ago.”

In a blog post pub­lished in April, Etsy ar­gued that over­turn­ing the Quill de­ci­sion “would cre­ate an in­flux of new ad­min­is­tra­tive bur­dens that could stif le mi­crobusi­nesses and en­trepreneurs across the coun­try,” and said the com­pany had filed an am­i­cus brief. Such web­sites, the com­pany said, “lower the bar­ri­ers to en­trepreneur­ship, and have al­lowed for any­one with an idea and an in­ter­net con­nec­tion to turn their cre­ative pas­sions into thriv­ing busi­nesses.” Last year Ama­zon be­gan col­lect­ing taxes on its own prod­ucts in states that charge it, but not on items from third-party ven­dors.

The sites have their own strengths and weak­nesses. Brook­lyn-based Etsy was founded in 2005, giv­ing it a 10-year head start on Ama­zon Hand­made, but Hand­made has the back­ing of one of the world’s largest re­tail­ers. Etsy func­tions as a stand­alone plat­form, while Ama­zon Hand­made is part of the gen­eral Ama­zon web­site, and the cat­e­gories for prod­ucts are dif­fer­ent on both. Ama­zon Hand­made for­bids mass-pro­duced prod­ucts and re­quires that wares meet a spe­cific def­i­ni­tion: “made en­tirely by hand, hand-al­tered, or hand as­sem­bled” and crafted by the seller, one of their em­ploy­ees if they have 20 or fewer work­ers or a “mem­ber of your col­lec­tive with less than

100 peo­ple.” In the past Etsy has been crit­i­cized for al­low­ing some mass-man­u­fac­tured goods, which some say has opened the door for re­sellers on the plat­form. Ac­cord­ing to the com­pany’s cur­rent poli­cies, sellers can work with a man­u­fac­turer but must be the prod­uct de­signer and “trans­par­ent about your busi­ness, your pro­duc­tion part­ner, and your de­sign process.” Ama­zon has a 15 per­cent re­fer­ral fee, while Etsy charges a 3.5 per­cent trans­ac­tion fee and a 20-cent list­ing fee. Nei­ther Etsy nor Ama­zon Hand­made re­sponded to in­ter­view re­quests.

Jus­tine Car­roll, who sells vin­tage cloth­ing on­line, mi­grated from ebay to Etsy sev­eral years ago be­cause the plat­form was geared more to­ward her tar­get au­di­ence: “the cre­ative type look­ing for some­thing unique.” Un­der Car­roll’s cur­rent Etsy shop, Vintspi­ra­tion, she’s sold more than 1,200 pieces.

“It’s a sec­ond job, but an en­joy­able one,” Car­roll, who works at Catholic Char­i­ties, said.

The process starts with Car­roll comb­ing through bins at es­tate sales and thrift stores. She then cleans and steams each item, pho­to­graphs it, takes the gar­ment mea­sure­ments and writes a brief de­scrip­tion for a list­ing. The in­ven­tory oc­cu­pies the master bed­room at her two-bed­room apart­ment.

Some of her fa­vorite finds in­clude a Rudi Gern­re­ich dress she bought for $2 and sold for sev­eral hun­dred and a Diane von Fursten­berg wrap dress she got for $25 and sold for $325. But the bulk of her items are ev­ery­day wear, like sim­ple skirts and loose-fit­ting but­ton-down tops, that she sells for less than $40, a price point com­pa­ra­ble to brands like H&M and For­ever 21.

“The ba­sics are my bread and but­ter,” Car­roll said.

The data Etsy pro­vides on the back end, like the num­ber of on­line vis­its to Car­roll’s shop and how sales have changed year over year, is ben­e­fi­cial, she said. The plat­form also sup­plies ship­ping la­bels, mak­ing it easy to mail items quickly. It can be time-con­sum­ing, but the more time she spends on it the bet­ter the re­sults are. Car­roll also uses In­sta­gram and so­cial me­dia to post pho­tos of the items she’s sell­ing through Etsy.

“You get out what you put into it,” she said,

Ad­just­ing to the dif­fer­ences be­tween the two plat­forms can be chal­leng­ing, said Jess Sch­le­icher, who sells cro­cheted an­i­mal butts and pat­terns through her busi­ness Knot By Gran’ma. She joined Etsy in the mid-2000s and started sell­ing through Ama­zon Hand­made about a year ago. The ap­pli­ca­tion process for Ama­zon was more in-depth, re­quir­ing com­po­nents like pho­tos of Sch­le­icher mak­ing her wares as well as pho­tos of the items she wanted to sell, she said, but that may help keep re­sellers off the plat­form. Sch­le­icher said she’s had to spend more time ed­u­cat­ing her­self on how to use the site and is still ex­per­i­ment­ing with tweak­ing ti­tles and list­ing de­scrip­tions to boost her spot in search re­sults.

While sales have been less con­sis­tent on Ama­zon Hand­made, they’re still up 700 per­cent on both plat­forms com­bined com­pared to last year, Sch­le­icher said. The pro­mo­tions and hol­i­day no­ti­fi­ca­tions Etsy of­fers have also been help­ful. She ex­pects to earn enough this year to start ex­pand­ing her prod­ucts.

“You see more re­sults when you put in the work,” Sch­le­icher said. “You’re not go­ing to be a mil­lion­aire overnight.”

mis­zler@time­sunion.com 518454-5018 @madis­on­is­zler

Pho­tos by Lori Van Buren / Times Union

Jus­tine Car­roll of Me­chan­icville looks through her in­ven­tory of cloth­ing she is of­fer­ing for sale on Etsy. She uses the site to sell vin­tage items.

Racks and bins are full in the Me­chan­icville home of Jus­tine Car­roll. She sells the cloth­ing on Etsy, a stand-alone re­tail plat­form.

Lori Van Buren / times union

Jus­tine Car­roll takes a photo of a vin­tage skirt to sell on­line through etsy.

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